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Old 12th July 2020, 05:04 AM   #1
Cathey
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Default Fish Skin Grips on British Swords?

Hi Guys

I was recently offered a c1640 British sword, but Rex was put off by the good condition fish skin grip and buff liner. I am sure the sword is correct and agree with Rex that the addition of the Fish skin grip as seen on Victorian basket hilts etc and liner may have just been an attempt to restore the sword. Then I realised that I actually have no idea when this type of grip first appeared, can anyone outthere enlighted me.

I have attached a pic of the grip of one of my VIctorian Basket hilts so you know what I am referring to.

Cheers Cathey
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Old 12th July 2020, 11:11 AM   #2
fernando
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Hi Cathey,
Is THIS THREAD useful ?
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Old 12th July 2020, 04:48 PM   #3
Jim McDougall
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It seems to me that the use of rayskin (often termed shagreen in Europe) was likely derived from grip covering styles used in Eastern Europe in 17th-18th c.
Most well known were the Tatar sabres known as 'ordynka' which often sported this grip covering in the 17th c. using rayskin ( described in "Origins of the Polish Saber, Jan Ostrowski, 1979).

British military were considerably influenced by Eastern fashions and may have adopted use of rayskin via their contacts with these forces as allies in various circumstances. British basket hilts of 17th-18th c. are seen with this grip cover as shown.

Earlier use of rayskin as a grip cover than 17th c. is unclear, but as it had Asian foundation likely carried into Tatar spheres, it seems possible use in Chinese context may have been earlier.
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Old 12th July 2020, 11:11 PM   #4
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G'day Cathey,
I don't know when it was first used, but I can tell you there were two types used on British swords. In the 18th century the "ray skin" type with large nodules was commonly used. Below is a picture of a 1788 heavy cavalry officer sword with this type of grip. In the 19th century it was more common to use the close grained variety you show in your photo, although occasionally the "ray skin" type was also used. I have never been sure if both types come from different areas of the same type of ray, or if the close grained type is from a shark rather than ray.

Cheers,
Bryce
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Old 13th July 2020, 10:39 AM   #5
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So, if i get it, a bit of a puzzle is the association of shagreen ( from Turc çagri = onager's back) with wfish (ray or shark) skin. While it appears (to me), that fish skin was used in European swords, in Asia was shagreen that was used in weapons like Japanese Nihontó and Chinese composite bows during the King dinasty, this being therefore quite a few centuries old fashion.
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Old 13th July 2020, 12:57 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Cathey
Hi Guys

I was recently offered a c1640 British sword, but Rex was put off by the good condition fish skin grip and buff liner. I am sure the sword is correct and agree with Rex that the addition of the Fish skin grip as seen on Victorian basket hilts etc and liner may have just been an attempt to restore the sword. Then I realised that I actually have no idea when this type of grip first appeared, can anyone outthere enlighted me.

I have attached a pic of the grip of one of my VIctorian Basket hilts so you know what I am referring to.

Cheers Cathey


In rereading this, I think I would be a bit hesitant as well about presuming a well preserved ray skin grip and buff liner on a mid 17th c. British sword is original to it. As far as I have understood, while rayskin and variants were used through Asia much earlier, this affectation was not used in Great Britain on sword grips until at least mid 18th c.
It then becomes a matter of accepting the sword as structurally sound as a serving example of the type and allowing for the replaced component as an aesthetic replacement.
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Old 18th July 2020, 12:43 AM   #7
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G'day Guys,

Does any one know when the term "shagreen" started being used in association with ray and shark skin grips? In the Carlton House Catalogue which describes many swords in the possession of King George IV in the period of 1790's thru to the 1820's, these types of grips are described as "fish skin".
Cheers,
Bryce
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Old 18th July 2020, 08:01 PM   #8
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The terminology over here (Portugal), be it in collections, books or museums, is still nowadays fish skin (pele de peixe).
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Old 19th July 2020, 03:50 AM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bryce
G'day Guys,

Does any one know when the term "shagreen" started being used in association with ray and shark skin grips? In the Carlton House Catalogue which describes many swords in the possession of King George IV in the period of 1790's thru to the 1820's, these types of grips are described as "fish skin".
Cheers,
Bryce
G'day Bryce, according to the Webster-Merriam Dictionary, the earliest known use of shagreen is 1677 in relation to rough, grainy, untanned horse hide. Subsequently applied to similar leather from other animals (onager, donkey, mule) and later to stingray, shark, etc. Probably from French, chagrin, leather from a horse's croup; from Turkish cagri, rump; and perhaps akin to Mongolian sa'ggru, to sit. Ian


https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/shagreen
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Old 19th July 2020, 04:36 PM   #10
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It seems to me that the term 'shagreen' was most likely a more fashionable term for the grip material than the description 'fish or ray skin', which likely sounded rather grim to status conscious officers and gentry. I have seen the term used in various descriptions pertaining to British swords, particularly of 18th century. It seems this term was used in other material culture or furnishing items as well in British context.

If I recall correctly the Tatar sabers known typically as 'ordynka' (=the horde) were often also termed czeczuga, a term for ray skin grips typically found on these 17th-18th c. sabers. This was described in Ostrowski, ("Origins of the Polish Saber", 1979) but I do not have the article at hand.

In collecting there is a myriad of these kinds of terms used in descriptions often found redundantly referring to essentially the same thing, and terms used which though misnomers and popular vernacular of the time, have become standard in modern use so hard to disassociate.

Either way, it was an attractive and functional material used, as noted, into early oriental times and diffused from Asia into Eastern Europe, where these influences attracted the attention of British sword makers.
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Old 20th July 2020, 03:42 AM   #11
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G'day Guys,
Came across this photo of a sword in the collection of the York Museum. The blade is marked "Me Fecit Hunsloe" and dates to around 1640. The grip is worn fish skin. No guarantee it hasn't been replaced at some stage, but does suggest the grip on the sword Cathey started the post with could be genuine.
Cheers,
Bryce
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Old 20th July 2020, 04:21 AM   #12
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Bryce, in complete accord with what you are saying....I have been going through English sword resources for hours concerning our discussion in a concurrent thread and saw the same references. This was I believe on several swords I saw in other sources as well, and these swords of 1620s-50s were indeed with 'fish skin' grips (clearly not using the shagreen term), but certainly showing the material in use in first half 17th c.
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Old 23rd July 2020, 04:46 AM   #13
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Default Fish of a different species

On this thread we are talking about the skins of two distinct types of fish. The British sword in the image included in post #1 has a sharkskin-covered grip.

The hilt shown in post #4 has a ray-skin grip.

Shark skin is typically gray, and very fine-grained, with a uniform texture.

There are several varieties of ray (in popular usage, the identifiers manta- and sting- are common adjectives but marine biologists have listed others, living in various areas in the aquasphere. In their natural state, ray skins tend towards white or an ivory shade. The skin is easily dyed, and this was widely practiced for decorative purposes in China. The nodules that form the "grain" on the surface are larger than shark, varying in size according to anatomical location and the species.

On some species, like the hides favored for the hilts on Tatar sabers (czeczugas or ordynkas), one often sees a peculiar distribution of huge, almost star-like nodules interspersed among smaller ones. For the rayskin strips on Japanese hilts, the part of the hide from the center dorsal region of another species was favored for the aesthetics of the graduated row of large nodules. In both these instances, the hides were used au naturel, with the bumps intact.

In China and Japan, the natural hide was sometimes filled with lacquer after being installed on the object, and then ground and polished down flush to leave the grain visible against the dark (usually black) lacquer in the low spots, a very attractive effect. I once saw a rare shield of Indian shape, covered with the "star" rayskin commonly associated with the Tatar hilts referenced above, and given the lacquer treatment as described here in one of the colonies of emigré Japanese craftsmen working in Batavia.

The normal treatment of rayskin on Chinese and Korean scabbards was dyed and polished smooth; jade green and a reddish brown were favored colors. Because the size of the nodules was graduated depending on anatomical location, care had to be taken at seams to match the material as closely as possible to maintain a more or less uniform effect. For this purpose, larger hides were considered more desirable.
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Old 23rd July 2020, 04:51 AM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ian
G'day Bryce, according to the Webster-Merriam Dictionary, the earliest known use of shagreen is 1677 in relation to rough, grainy, untanned horse hide. Subsequently applied to similar leather from other animals (onager, donkey, mule) and later to stingray, shark, etc. Probably from French, chagrin, leather from a horse's croup; from Turkish cagri, rump; and perhaps akin to Mongolian sa'ggru, to sit. Ian


https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/shagreen


A colleague in Israel who works with a leather restorer advised that the typical leather covering on shamshir and kilij scabbards, with the pimpled "chicken-skin" texture, is indeed donkey skin. And the rump provides the best texture!

All of us are anxious to obtain this material for scabbard restoration work, but he looked into the matter and found that the only commercial source for it today is in ... Iran. So we Americans and Israelis are outa luck, rats!!
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Old 9th August 2020, 06:02 PM   #15
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...........or donkeys!
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Old 9th August 2020, 09:19 PM   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ian
leather from other animals (onager...) Probably from French, chagrin, leather from a horse's croup; from Turkish cagri, rump; and perhaps akin to Mongolian sa'ggru, to sit. Ian


https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/shagreen


It's worth mentioning, to elaborate on my comment above re donkey skin as used on Persian and Ottoman scabbards, that there there is yet another hide from a related equine species with a decidedly different appearance.

This is the skin of the Inner Asian onager, a wild ass of the steppes, as opposed to the domestic donkey. It was commonly used on the grips and scabbard facings of Tibetan knives and swords. The material can be readily distinguished in appearance and texture from the donkey skin on, say, a Persian shamshir scabbard in that it is somewhat thicker, a chestnut brown in color (phasing to black with extensive handling, but retaining a dull appearance with no luster), and most importantly, having a wrinkled texture as opposed to a pimply, "chicken skin" effect.

I have recently been advised by a contact in the UK that this onager skin has recently been added to the CITES list because of the animals' status in the wild, if so it's yet another restriction on those of us in the trade.

Besides on edged weapons, this type of skin is sometimes encountered on other ethnographic objects from the Himalayan and Mongolian regions.
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Old 9th August 2020, 10:02 PM   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bryce
G'day Guys,

Does any one know when the term "shagreen" started being used in association with ray and shark skin grips? In the Carlton House Catalogue which describes many swords in the possession of King George IV in the period of 1790's thru to the 1820's, these types of grips are described as "fish skin".
Cheers,
Bryce


I understood shagreen to be mule or donkey hide boiled in a cupric solution.

Thanks Philip for answering my question before I asked it. I don't like tanning much. I do not think I would try to make it...
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Old 10th August 2020, 04:58 AM   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Interested Party
I understood shagreen to be mule or donkey hide boiled in a cupric solution.

Thanks Philip for answering my question before I asked it. I don't like tanning much. I do not think I would try to make it...


You're most welcome. The term "shagreen" is widely used, and in many cases it's not clear whether the writer or speaker is really describing something from surf (ray- or sharkskin) or turf (donkey, onager, etc).

And I've heard some people think that the word implies that the material must be green in color. (as regards your quote, compounds containing copper have indeed been used in a wide variety of dyes, glazes, and vitreous powders to impart a green color to a variety of materials, including hides, fibers, ceramics, and glass -- largely reduced in modern times in many applications due to the toxicity of many cupric compounds.)

Because of the confusion that the term shagreen engenders, I prefer to use terms based on the exact material involved (such as ray skin, leather, etc), and because finished hides can come in a variety of surface textures or grains (some being artificially created, such as the "morocco" used for bookbinding), use "shagreen leather" to identify the material with the specific bumpy or pimply look associated with certain scabbards.

Speaking of artificial texturing, here's something else (as if this subject isn't complicated enough already) -- In the Far East, hilt- and scabbard fitters imitated the bumpy texture of ray skin and natural shagreen leather in a couple of ways:

1. In Japan and Korea, embossed sheets of silver or gilt copper, were on occasion laid on the sides of sword hilts under the braided wrapping just as samé, or natural ray skin, was normally used.

2. In China, natural shagreen was by the 17th cent. onwards imitated by embossing vellum between rollers. The material was used to cover scabbards, being dyed either black or dark green, and protected with clear lacquer. This method ensured strict uniformity in the size of the bumps, and although they were very closely packed, the distribution does (upon close inspection) reveal a repetitive pattern due to the way that the rollers were cut. This is the way the product can be readily distinguished from natural, despite similar thickness, color, and surface sheen.
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